Simplicity isn’t easy. Mastering the basics of cooking to season a bit of meat correctly or make pastry is often underestimated. Just watch Masterchef The Professionals to see how hard it is to get an omelette spot on, or try to make a rosti. The skills learnt in catering college are too often cast aside in favour of sous-vide machines which slowly boil away the flavour in favour of the right shade of crimson on the plate, whilst gimmicks of tacky props are used to detract from flaws in talent. And I say that having eaten one of the worst Beef Wellingtons – somehow both overcooked and under-rested – of my life from a young and very well-known chef whose gaff is literally full of tacky props.
Whilst simplicity rarely gets you TV time, it does get my full attention. St Paul’s House was a little off-radar for me, a place I’d not eaten at but drank at on occasion. It’s a smart hotel in the heart of St Paul’s Square that makes a good Negroni and a very nice Old Fashioned. It’s bright and well-lit, buzzy and smart. The menu talks of stuff you want to tell your friends about because of how it tastes, not what it is allegedly inspired by. There is a starter of bruschetta, disc of bread lightly toasted, with wedges of multi-coloured tomatoes nestled daintily around its peripherals. What makes it sing is the concasse of tomato, bright with vinegar, that brings it to life way more than Kathryn Jenkins could manage covering Evanescence. The balsamic glaze is totally unwarranted, but this is simple and above all tasty. Chicken Coxina is about as exotic as the menu gets: Brazilian street food snacks, breaded and formed into teardrops, the inside a jumble of shredded roast chicken lightly flavoured with garlic. The onion chutney isn’t an obvious pairing in these eyes, though it works by adding a robustness for the rest to play off.
It’s cold and blustery outside, and whilst the idea of herb crusted cod or harissa cauliflower sounds great, it’s really a lump of molten cheese we both want. We get camembert, baked until the roof starts to collapse and fragrant with both garlic and thyme. The onion chutney returns (I really should have considered the order a bit better), along with some sourdough that works as the ideal vehicle from plate to mouth. And whilst I appreciate that this is far from the least exciting option to read about, it is my dinner and it’s what I wanted.
Far more interesting is the best dish of the day. Chicken supreme, brined and then cooked until the skin has blackened, crisped and topped with chimichurri, with possibly the only sweet potato fries I have ever enjoyed and a salad of various citrus. The cook on the chicken is spot-on, with a good amount of lemon and a healthy whack of chilli. What makes it is the chimichurri; green and tart, it does the hand-holding between the meat and the fries and the salad. At £14.50 it stands out as one of the better chicken mains this year. There is no room for dessert. Simplicity is often overlooked, yet here it is the starting point for the menu. Everything has two or three elements, and is designed for pleasure and not posturing. They do it well at St Pauls House at a price that always seems fair.